The Best Strategy: Don’t Look Down

I’m happy to report that “take two” of my attempts to actually make it to Madagascar was successful. Exceptionally so. I think the airline gods were smiling down upon me when they re-issued the ticket from my first attempt. I was blessed with rock star seating in Premium Economy class. Located like a misfit cabin somewhere between First class and the “regular old joes” in Economy, Premium Economy is anything but economic. Replete with arm rests wide enough to prevent fighting with your neighbor for “arm rest real estate” and more leg room than necessary (did I just say that?), Premium is a godsend for the weary traveler. I’ve been spoiled now. Regular Economy just won’t satisfy.

10:30 pm. Touchdown after 10.5 hours in the air. Madagascar vs. Jungle Queen, Round 4 (insert boxing match bell here). Bring it on, jungle. I’ll be completing this field season with champion dwarf lemur researcher, Marina, whom you may have read about from previous posts. The next morning, after not nearly enough sleep, brought post-touchdown standard operating procedure: Nauseating 8-hour ride to the field site, set up camp, pass out for 2 hours from exhaustion, eat dinner, pass out once again. After the first night at camp, I awoke to the rising sun burning off the mist draping the mountains giving way to a brilliant blue Madagascan sky, and an overwhelming feeling of optimism. I was finally able to process what my jet-lagged mind failed to do the day before. The forest, so badly decimated by frost in July, recovering at a rapid and reassuring pace. The abundant peach and plum trees bursting with incredible blooms, gearing up to bear fruit in a month or so. Even the weather seemed to be behaving, boasting uber-comfy sleeping temps, not warranting a piling on of every single clothing item in my pack. I think I’m going to like September!

Where are all the peaches?

Where are all the peaches?

Plums!

Plums!

Back in July, we left 15 collared animals happily slumbering away in their underground burrows. Our trusty Malagasy guides, Renee, Jules, and Parfait have been keeping weekly tabs on the fuzzies in our absence to see who moved hibernacula locations (a normal occurrence. An animal will rouse and move to a new underground site usually once or twice during the winter), and who “woke up”. As of a week ago, all of our collared animals were doing the normal dwarf lemur thing, that is, still hibernating. Marina and I planned our trip to coincide with emergence from hibernation. So, the first order of business was to answer the burning question of, “Which animals are awake?”

Around 8 am we left for the “take stock of the situation” hike. We had the overly ambitious goal of checking all of the animals. Well, like most things in life, that didn’t quite work out how we had planned. Animal #1–a tiny juvenile named Luisa. We confidently stride to where we left her comfortably holed-up in July. Well, everyone else confidently strides. I bumble afterwards like a person with two left feet who was never taken a step in her life. Of course Luisa is not there, her hibernaculum mysteriously vacant. The following scenario ensues. Step 1. Grab handy dandy radio-tracking device (detachable antenna is useful here to amplify the signal). Step 2. Locate the direction of the signal. Step 3. March on, soldier. Repeat steps 1-3 as necessary until animal is located. So, the soldiers march on. And by “on” I mean down. And up. And down…The trek to find Luisa is, well, a smidgen challenging. She (and her sibling, Natacha) are notorious for enjoying the best views Madagascar has to offer (the little pleasures in life, right?). Their sleeping site and hibernacula preferences are typically found on ridiculously steep slopes. The views are, in fact, breathtaking, I’ll give ’em that, but man, do they present some interesting hurdles! At this point there is no path to follow, which really makes me appreciate the term “trail-blazing”, in its most literal sense. I notice many felled trees, which is the forest’s evil scheme to force us to scramble over (or under) them. This scrambling makes me feel equal parts like an awkward gymnast attempting a horrible pommel horse routine, and a tree-dwelling creature sporting limbs too long to do anything but get in the way. Ironically enough, in my former life, I was one…an awkward gymnast, not a tree-dwelling creature. It’s not all bad, though. In the midst of all the scrambling we glance up and notice a beautiful diademed sifaka eyeing us from its tree perch. In my head, this majestic creature is laughing at us, just waiting to tell all its lemur friends about our (well, my) clumsiness. At one point we come to a place where anyone with even the slightest fear of heights would be rendered immobilized. We’re forced to pass this point on a “ledge” that is only about 6 inches wide and is made of loose soil. The best strategy? Don’t look down. Do I listen to my own sound advice? Do I ever? Of course, I am staring down, wide-eyed and mouth gaping, noting the absence of large trees that would surely catch a fall, and the extremely sharp-looking volcanic rocks looming below us. Making casual conversation I start, “Say, Marina. How far of a drop do you think that is?” She stops, thinks a bit. “Oh, maybe 30 meters.” I, however, think it’s much farther. But that’s only because I can’t even see the ground. After miraculously maneuvering this death trap, we finally locate Luisa.

Now, I’ve decided that Luisa isn’t the brightest crayon in the box. Let me explain why. She is found up in a tree, curled in a ball. No nest. No tree hole. Completely vulnerable to predators, as if she is inviting birds of prey to come snatch her up for a tasty meal. Marina and I have a habit of creating intricate “soap opera-esque” story lines about our animals (Who’s cheating on whom. What animal acted out of jealous rage…). We completely anthropomorphize them, with personalities drawn up in our imaginations from odd behavior, like Luisa’s. These stories would, of course, never show up in our scholarly publications, but they do function to pass the time on long lemur-finding expeditions. Luisa’s story includes the annoying younger sister tag-along phase, and her older, reproductively active, sister not wanting her to get in the way of dating.

I hate to admit it, but I would be surprised if Luisa survived much longer. At least in this case she would be beautifully demonstrating one of Nature’s principle tenets: Survival of the fittest. Only the healthiest (and smartest–sorry, Luisa) will survive long enough to reproduce and contribute their genetic material to the gene pool. I fear our dumb (cute, but dumb) Luisa might not make it that far in life. But who knows, maybe she has a survival strategy that my simple human brain fails to comprehend. I sure do hope so.

Luisa is a curious case for another reason. Like I mentioned, she is a juvenile. Marina has been intensely monitoring the hibernation patterns (e.g. duration, timing of entrance and emergence from hibernation) of this population of dwarf lemurs for years. The same patterns that are documented in other hibernating species are readily apparent in dwarf lemurs at Tsinjoarivo. Adult males emerge first. Adult females emerge second. Juveniles follow as the last to emerge. Males, those lucky guys, get the job of searching for fruits to gain back some of their depleted fat stores and prepare for…ummm…passing along their seed when the females become active (testes growth is a costly thing, folks). In some species of hibernators, the males will congregate around the entrances of the underground burrows waiting for the females to emerge. (Full disclosure: this fact may or may not be true. I feel as though I’ve read this in a paper, but writing from the field makes it hard to fact-check!). I imagine the male arctic ground squirrel impatiently taping its foot, incessantly checking his watch, and thinking, “Come on, ladies!” Post-hibernation is a stressful time for the females, as well. Although they emerge from hibernation in much better body condition (i.e. more fat stores still available), mating occurs quickly after emergence, so the next few months are fraught with the challenges of finding enough food to sustain a pregnancy, and prepare for the very energetically costly act of lactation. Juvenile dwarf lemurs do not reproduce within the first two years of life (maybe three, but the jury is still out on this matter), so they have the luxury of “sleeping in”. So, baby Luisa, what is your deal?!? She might be single-handedly throwing everything we thought we knew about dwarf lemur hibernation patterns out the proverbial window.

And now, your daily hibernation report: Three animals active (two adult males, and odd Luisa). Twelve still hibernating. Next up, a step-by-step guide on how to catch your very own dwarf lemur!

It’s a jungle out there!

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